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New Orleans' Aquarium of the Americas.

New Orleans' Aquarium of the Americas

Mention New Orleans and images of jazz, Bourbon Street, Dixieland, and maybe coffee with chicory at Cafe DuMonde come to mind. Accessibility isn't the first thing that one associates with the city, but that may be changing because of a new partnership between persons with disabilities and the City of New Orleans.

Civic pride and a willingness to work to make a city accessible to all its citizens prompted a number of advocates and activists for persons with disabilities to contact the New Orleans Audubon Institute, an organization which operates the New Orleans Zoological Garden, following the announcement of a pending aquarium in the Riverfront area of the city. Those citizens wanted to work together with city and zoo officials to make the new aquarium facility accessible to all persons. The Institute and the city responded positively and a partnership was born which will have a profound influence on the citizens of New Orleans and its thousands of visitors.

From the start, the Audubon Institute staff were cooperative. Arrangements were made, said Charles Tubre, the chair of the new accessibility committee, for the establishment of the committee and for meetings with the architects of the facility, and with persons responsible for the exhibits in the facility. Audubon Executive Director Ron Forman voiced the commitment with the statement that "in order to have a complete world class facility, it would have to be accessible to everyone."

The process meant meeting about every month and a half with architects and other design staff over a period of two years, and the committee believes that the outcome will be well worth it.

The Aquarium of the Americas, as the new facility will be known, will use the latest in technology to recreate habitats and "bring the visitor into close contact with the animals." Four of the five major exhibits are "walk through" replicas of natural habitats: a Caribbean reef, the Amazon River Basin, the Mississippi River Delta, the Gulf of Mexico. Another will feature various adaptations of aquatic life.

The largest exhibit, the Gulf of Mexico aquarium, will include a 400,000 gallon tank. The Mississippi Delta exhibit will include displays of endangered lake sturgeon and primitive shark such as paddlefish. Other aspects of the exhibits will concern seafood production and protection of delicate habitats from pollution.

The Aquarium will cost about $40 million to build. The setting includes a 16-acre Mississippi waterfront park linking the business district with the French Quarter. Part of the waterfront will include a 1-1/4 mile, wheelchair accessible streetcar line.

The committee on accessibility specifically looked at six areas--persons who are hearing impaired, persons who are sight impaired, persons with mobility impairment, and persons with psychological and developmental disabilities. They did not want to leave any segment of citizens out. The Aquarium is probably the first facility of its type to be designed and built completely accessible to all visitors.

As Dr. Mollie Alarcon, a committee member, pointed out, the Aquarium will be appreciated by mothers who have children in strollers as well as by persons who are elderly. In addition, Dr. Alarcon, a special education specialist in developmental disabilities who is married to the chief of staff of the Mayor of New Orleans, believes that the effort will enhance the city's reputation. This dual commitment to persons with disabilities and to the city has proven particularly helpful in the design process. She believes that the project is a "cornerstone" for the community and that it will serve as the beginning of a new awareness in New Orleans that all persons are important.

The committee did extensive research. For example, people with visual impairments needed adequate lighting and oversized signs. People in wheelchairs required appropriate heights for exhibits, and people with hearing impairments needed reliable interpreter services. Recommendations were also made with regard to employment of persons with disabilities at the Aquarium.

With the completion of the Aquarium of the Americas, a corridor of accessible sidewalks and pathways will stretch along the Mississippi River from the foot of Canal Street to Jackson Square. The corridor will link existing facilities such as the Riverwalk, Jax Brewery, and the Old Mint on Esplande. The Woldenberg Riverfront Park opened in the fall of last year. The Aquarium is scheduled to open on Labor Day, 1990. Although planned to be fully accessible, the project was not without some controversy. Dan Kessler, a former committee member, indicates that the Bandstand was originally not designed for full access. He commented that persons with disabilities can also be musicians. The issue was not fully resolved when Kessler moved to a new job in Alabama.

Future plans for the area include a fully accessible science museum.

The hope of the committee is that New Orleans will be a model for other communities. What has occurred in New Orleans can occur elsewhere. The Aquarium project serves as a reminder that communication is important and that persons with disabilities can assist in the process of designing communities in partnership with government and other organizations.

PAUL LEUNG is the Editor of the Journal of Rehabilitation.
COPYRIGHT 1990 National Rehabilitation Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Leung, Paul
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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